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L.A. sues Venice landlord over ‘illegal hotel.’ Tenants say they face coronavirus risk

The Ellison in Venice.
The Ellison, above, has long been a focus for local activists and officials alarmed that apartments buildings have been illegally turned into hotels.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles is taking a longtime landlord to court, accusing him of illegally running a Venice apartment building as an unpermitted hotel outfitted with a reception desk, key cards and noisy shows for a revolving door of tourists.

The Ellison has long been a focus for local activists and officials alarmed that apartment buildings have been illegally turned into hotels. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, has called it the “poster child” for the problem, which eventually spurred the city to pass new rules on renting out homes and apartments for short stays.

In recent days, as Angelenos were urged to stay home to protect themselves and others from the novel coronavirus, tenants at the Ellison have complained that the ongoing crush of travelers could jeopardize their health.

“I’m a ‘senior citizen with an underlying condition,’ basically the far end of the at-risk group, and I have to share the elevator, stairwell and lobby with an ever changing stream of tourists,” longtime resident Bruce Kijewski, 71, wrote in an email outlining his concerns. “Some are wearing masks and gloves, some are just partying like there’s no tomorrow.”

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In their new lawsuit, city attorneys accuse landlord Lance Jay Robbins and two companies tied to the Venice building of trying to push out longtime tenants so that more rooms can be rented to night-to-night guests who book rooms online.

Doing so has pulled needed housing off the market and violates both municipal and state laws, they argue. The lawsuit calls for an injunction to stop the 58-unit building from being advertised and operated as a hotel. City attorneys stressed that the Ellison falls under L.A.'s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which limits annual rent increases for tenants.

“We will fight when a landlord tries to replace scarce rent-stabilized apartments with short-term rentals,” City Atty. Mike Feuer said in a statement. “L.A. desperately needs more affordable housing, not less.”

Attorney Thomas Nitti, who represents Robbins and the other defendants, said the city was retaliating for their lawsuits against the city “to establish the Ellison as a historical hotel.” The building owners have argued in court that the Ellison was historically rented out for short stays and wrongly categorized decades ago by the city as an apartment house.

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“It’s an act of desperation by the city,” Nitti said.

Tenants Bruce Kijewski and Kelly Day
Tenants Bruce Kijewski, left, and Kelly Day talk about concerns with night-to-night rentals at the Ellison on September 11, 2018.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Tenants also lodged a lawsuit of their own nearly two years ago, alleging that running the Ellison as a hotel had created nuisances for longtime residents. One of those residents, Brian Averill, said this week that the problem had gone from a “quality-of-life thing” to “a life-or-death thing.” He was especially alarmed for Kijewski, who uses an oxygen tank.

“If there ever was a reason to shut down this building, the coronavirus is it,” Averill said.

Nitti said that fewer guests were staying at the Ellison than usual, and that nightly rates had been cut to ensure it could keep operating. Building management has been providing hand sanitizer, wiping down surfaces, and “deep cleaning the units — the industry standard,” Nitti said.

Robbins rejected allegations of nuisances at the building, pointing to positive reviews posted online by travelers. He argued that the Ellison was less risky for coronavirus infection than other buildings because it had open spaces and an entrance that wasn’t enclosed, as well as rooms and a rooftop large enough to practice social distancing.

“If people want to be in a healthy environment, this is about as healthy an environment as you can be in,” Robbins said.

Averill, the tenant, disputed the idea that building operators were taking special steps to protect them and guests. “It’s business as usual here,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday.


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